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Image: Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li
20th Century Fox
"Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li" may be yet another awful movie adaptation of a video game, but its human portrayal of its leading lady offers us a glimmer of hope.
By InGame reporter
NBC News
updated 3/4/2009 8:19:48 AM ET 2009-03-04T13:19:48

The phrase “hope springs eternal” perfectly sums up the state gamers find themselves in when it comes to movies based on their favorite video games.

That is, time and time again, those of us who love video games have seen our hopes dashed on the cruel rocks of reality as one movie adaptation of a game after another has been slapped up on the silver screen … to god-awful results.

And yet, we continue returning to the theaters, hoping beyond all reasonable hope that one day a genuinely great movie based on one of our beloved games will finally arrive.

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li ” — a movie based on the long-running “Street Fighter” series of games — opened in theaters over the weekend, offering gamers the latest sliver of hope. And like the dutiful, bull-headedly optimistic gaming fans we are, we marched off to buy our tickets and our popcorn.

And, as per usual, the movie didn’t fail to disappoint.

“The Legend of Chun-Li” is dreadful in so many ways it’s hard to know where to begin. And yet, after sitting through an hour and a half of cinematic awfulness, I can say that just maybe, perhaps, there’s reason to believe that things are starting to look up. In fact, a look at several recent video game movies as well as a look at what’s to come down the road reveals perhaps the most promising signs yet that there might be better days ahead for video game adaptations.

For starters, Mike Newell, the director behind the excellent “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” is now working on the movie version of one of the all-time great games — “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.” Meanwhile, Gore Verbinski — director of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films — is bringing the hit game “Bioshock” to the big screen. And one can’t help but believe that if he can make fun, smart and compelling movies out of a Disney ride, then certainly he can make something solidly cinematic out of such a brilliant game.

I mean … right?

But more important, after watching the new “Street Fighter” as well as recent game-based movies like “Hitman” and “Max Payne,” I’ve noticed that video game-inspired films have started taking steps — albeit baby steps — toward getting one crucial element of great movie-making right: character development.

Oh the humanity
There are plenty of theories about why video games have failed to make a truly impressive leap to the big screen — that these adaptations are being made by people more interested in cashing in than in making great movies, that video games are an interactive medium and movies are a passive one and never the twain shall meet, that the resolutely untalented director Uwe Boll is continually allowed to helm these crossovers.

Certainly, in the early days, the translation difficulties were more understandable. That is, games and movies had little in common outside the fact they were both a form of entertainment.

Image: Hitman
Rico Torres  /  20th Century Fox
Timothy Olyphant's portrayal of a conflicted Agent 47 makes the "Hitman" movie perhaps the best video game adaptation yet.

Back in 1985 when the “Super Mario Bros.” game launched, for example, it had what was most important: lots of really fun turtle- and mushroom-pouncing gameplay. But it featured little in the way of a meaningful plot or well-developed characters. And so there was nothing about it that begged to be made into a movie. Nothing except for the massive following the game boasted (something money-hungry execs thought they could cash in on by taking the game to the theaters).

Consequently, the resulting film adaptation of “Super Mario Bros.” in 1993 was a failure of epic proportions, panned by film buffs and game buffs alike. And more of the same would soon follow.

But these days, video games and movies have far more in common — that is, games often feature not only cinematic style visuals, but the kind of epic and original storylines you might find in a film. Meanwhile game protagonists often are less cartoony and, yes, more realistic — increasingly complex characters who find themselves on increasingly complex and meaningful journeys. And so it seems, video games are genuinely ripe for translation to film.

Take the game “Max Payne.”It presented players with a protagonist haunted by the death of his wife and child, a man who sets out on a mission to bring justice to a drug-and-crime-ridden world. Certainly, it’s the kind of story line we’ve seen handled effectively on film, and so it made sense that this game would be brought to the silver screen.

Indeed, the recent slate of game-translating filmmakers seem to understand that while video game protagonists often have super-human abilities (after all, that’s what makes them fun to play), film-going audiences will only truly connect with characters who are genuinely human on some level. Last year’s film version of “Max Payne” was not a great movie for many reasons, but Mark Wahlberg’s beleaguered and vulnerable Max took it a step in the right direction.

Like “Max Payne,” the latest “Street Fighter” film is problematic on many levels. From the laughably bad dialog, to the hole-riddled plot, to the gratuitous use of flashback, voice over and slow motion — it all adds up to one cheese-filled movie experience. But “The Legend of Chun-Li” is a significant improvement over its predecessor — the 1994 “Street Fighter” film starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. That’s because instead of giving us nothing but one hyper cartoonish character after another it actually tries to give us something of a real human being in our leading lady.

Yes, this is the story of a young woman who becomes a bad-ass fighter with the ability to tornado-kick her way through throngs of nefarious ne’er-do-wells and toss around balls of electricity as if they were basketballs. But at the heart of the story is a young woman who loves her father and is struggling to grow up in a cruel, cruel world. As cliché-ridden as this tale may be, actress Kristin Kreuk actually delivers some glimmer of genuine human emotions to the film.

Who am I any way?
But to be human, I would argue, is to be conflicted not just about what’s happening in the world around us or happening to us … but to be conflicted about ourselves. To be human is to be confused about our place in the world, to struggle with who we really are. We humans are an incredibly insecure lot after all.

And this is why I’d argue that 2007’s “Hitman” film is, so far, the best of the game adaptations. Like the game, the film delivers us into the world of an uber-assassin — a cool character with the ability to shoot and slice his way through a non-stop string of baddies. But for all of Agent 47’s over-the-top killin’ skills, the movie-makers gave us a character struggling to find his place in the world … and more importantly, struggling with himself.

Raised to be nothing but an ice-cold murdering machine, Agent 47 (as portrayed by “Deadwood’s Timothy Olyphant) finds his world … and his notion of himself … turned upside-down when, unexpectedly, he finds himself experiencing genuine human emotions (for a woman, of course). Throughout much of the film, he doesn’t just struggle to survive the onslaught of opponents sent to kill him; he struggles to understand who he is and who he wants to be.

And whether viewers recognize it or not, that’s what makes for a truly compelling film: Internal struggles — not just external ones.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the great video game adaptation of all times needs to be a navel-gazing affair in which our hero — Pac-Man — does nothing but contemplate the meaning of a life spent munching pills and chasing ghosts, only to realize that it has all been for naught. I think the great video game adaptation can be an action-packed flick that pays homage to the gripping gameplay that first brought it to our attention. I just believe that it can, and must, be something more than that.

After all, while video games allow us to enjoy being super-human, movies truly succeed when they remind us that we are all too human.

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